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The Wisdom Books

Created by Michael Geelan. All rights reserved

Michael Geelan

on 4 October 2018

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Transcript of The Wisdom Books

The Wisdom Books
Everything was from the dust,
and everything goes back to the dust
Ecclesiastes 3:20
I will Praise
Lord of Wisdom
And this quest is the basic interest of every human being
The search for wisdom is the quest for the meaning of life
When trying to answer theological questions, humans are a lot like Michelangelo's Adam...
We reach out to grasp at the ultimate, yet the ultimate always remains out of reach...
This struggle for ultimate
meaning is exemplified in the Wisdom Books

Song of Songs
Wisdom of Solomon
The history of Israel’s wisdom movement is condensed in the Book of Proverbs
Like the Pentateuch, the Book of Proverbs represents the final stage of a tradition that stretches back at least to the time of Solomon, who might have composed or collected the original nucleus
Though the books themselves are relatively late in development, they reflect a wisdom tradition within Israel that had deep historical roots
Wisdom's Uniqueness
Within Israel’s wisdom literature, the
distinctive features
of Israel’s faith are lacking:
Wisdom Literature
Wisdom Literature is not unique to the Bible
Wisdom is a fundamentally human concern: Greek or Jew, Babylonian or Egyptian, American or North Korean, Democrat or Republican, male or female, monarch or slave, etc., etc., etc.
Traditional wisdom
focuses on
the individual
In general , it is not concerned with history or society as a whole
Wisdom literature falls into two classes:
Consists of practical advice to the young on how to attain a successful and good life
Examples Include:
Consists of reflective probing into the depth of human anguish about the meaning of life, often in a skeptical mood
Examples Include:
Both types of wisdom literature isolate the human problem from the particulars of history, and in this respect they stand in contrast to most of the biblical literature
Although much was produced in the post-exilic period, when Israel was deeply conscious of being a worshiping community, references to acts of worship are strikingly few
The personal name “YHWH” is not used in Ecclesiastes and hardly at all in Job
References to God are entirely absent from Song of Songs
Even when the name is used, as in Proverbs, nothing is made of the special relationship between YHWH and Israel
There are no explicit allusions to Israelite history or to outstanding Israelite personalities, with the single exception of Solomon
Wisdom's Canonicity
What about Psalms?
Psalms is essentially a collection of prayers and songs meant to be sung when Israel gathered to worship YHWH
Many of the Psalms are deeply aware of the special history Israelites share s a chosen people
However, while there are numerous "wisdom psalms" within the book (Psalms 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128), the book as a whole should not be thought of as "wisdom literature" like the books of Job and Ecclesiastes
In sum, while some of the psalms in the Book of Psalms reflects "wisdom literature," the book as a whole does not
Many of the Psalms are attributed to King David
Israel's wisdom movement exerted a pervasive influence on all types of Israelite literature: historical, prophetic, and poetic
The prophet Jeremiah refers to the “counsel of the wise” (
) as one of three groups within Israelite society that spoke with authority derived from YHWH (Jeremiah 18:18)
The beginnings of a uniquely Israelite wisdom school can be seen in the period of the early monarchy, beginning especially with the Age of Solomon
This movement eventually culminated in the full assimilation of wisdom literature into Israel's sacred heritage
Israel's Patron Sage

Several wisdom collections are contained in the book:
Common Sense Proverbs
Most proverbs are often short, crisp, two-line sentences dealing with some aspect of experience
Fear of YHWH
The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight
Faith in YHWH is the “beginning”—that is, the foundation or starting point from which one seeks understanding
Reason is not an obstacle to faith for the Israelite sages
This theme is a direct link with the covenant tradition prevalent throughout the rest of the OT
Rather, faith is the precondition for understanding
Basic to the covenant perspective was the theme of divine retribution
The idea that good deeds lead to success and bad deeds lead to ruin is a persistent theme in Proverbs
Theological Wisdom
By wisdom YHWH founded the earth,
by understanding established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke forth,
and the clouds rain down dew (3:19-20)
This progression can be seen in the latest section of Proverbs (chapters 1 through 9)
As time progressed, there was a growing interest in using wisdom to explore divine mysteries and to contemplate on the divine source of wisdom itself
Within Proverbs, we can see a progression that took place in the Israelite sages’ conception of wisdom
The most profound personification of Wisdom found in Proverbs is in
Several things should be said about this wonderful poem:
The language is metaphorical as is all God-language, and breaks free of the common masculine metaphors
The bold use of maternal imagery
Wisdom is portrayed as close to God, indeed, with God in the beginning, but not as co-eternal with God, or as a goddess
Is it really that simple?
The "Two Ways"
Qoheleth: “assembler” or “one who speaks at an assembly”
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity
Ecclesiastes 1:2
Merest breath, says Qoheleth,
merest breath! All is mere breath
Ecclesiastes 1:2
For in much wisdom is much worry,
and he who adds wisdom adds pain
The Times of our Lives
A time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time for war, and a time for peace
Ecclesiastes (3:2-8)
Both have the same breath. Human beings have no advantage over beasts, but all is vanity. Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return.
Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
I know that whatever God does endures forever;
nothing can be added to it,
nor anything taken from it; God has done this,
so that all should stand
in awe of him
Ecclesiastes 3:14
Ironically, many who celebrate and reference the Book of Job have only a faint understanding of what the book is about
This ignorance is clearest among those who refer to the “proverbial patience” of Job
In popular thinking Job is the model of piety—a man who patiently and serenely suffered without losing his faith. But this portrait holds true only in the prologue (Job 1:1—2:13) and the epilogue (42:7-17), both of which are written in prose
Scholars almost universally agree that the author of the poetic sections (which is the heart of the Book of Job) did not create the story that appears in the prologue and epilogue
The prologue and and the epilogue is in all likelihood a folktale that had been in circulation for centuries prior to composition of the Book of Job
Scholars generally believe that the old folktale serves as a narrative excuse to get the reader to the real story, which starts in chapter 3
The Folktale Frame:
Once, there was a Job, a man renowned for his piety and blessed with the divine favor that accompanied his righteousness
Job’s sincerity, however, was suspect to one member of the Heavenly Council—“the satan.” When YHWH boasts to the Council about “my servant Job,” the "satan", suspecting that Job’s service is motivated by self-interest cynically asks: “Does Job fear God for nought?”
The "satan" makes a wager with YHWH that if Job’s prosperity and family were taken away his faith would be destroyed. YHWH agrees to the wager.
In the blink of an eye, Job's livelihood and family are obliterated, all for the purpose of the wager between the "satan" and YHWH.
Job goes into mourning, but the losses do not shake his faith. In his sorrow he patiently murmurs: “YHWH gave, YHWH has taken away; blessed be the name of YHWH.”
So the "satan" proposes a more severe test...
Job is stricken with loathsome sores from head to foot, making it necessary for him to sit alone in the city refuse ground.
Ignoring his wife’s advice, he refuses to “sin with his lips” by cursing God.
Then his three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—come to comfort him in is plight.
In the end, according to his epilogue, YHWH accepts Job’s prayer and restores to him twice as much as he had before.
And, as in all good folktales, Job lives happily ever after.
Serves primarily (though not exclusively) as a pretext meant to get the reader to the exquisite poetry found in chapters 3 through 41
It is in these chapters that we find the radical viewpoint of the author
Unlike Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the poetry in Job is devoted to a single theme, developed in the exchange between Job and his friends
By day they encounter darkness,
as in night they go groping at noon
Job 5:14
Annul the day I was born
and the night that said,
"A man is conceived."
That day, let it be darkness.
Let God above not seek it out,
nor brightness shine upon it.
Let darkness, death's shadow, foul it
let a cloud-mass rest upon it,
let day-gloom dismay it.
That night, let murk overtake it.
Let it not join in the days of the year,
let it not enter the number of months
Oh, let that night be barren,
let it have no song of joy
Let the day-cursers hex it,
those ready to rouse Leviathan.
Let its twilight stars go dark.
Let it hope for day in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of dawn,
Job 3:3-9
Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
Job 38:2
What is man that You make him great
and you pay heed to him?
You single him out every morning,
every moment examine him.
Will you not look away for me for a while,
let me be, till I swallow my spit?
Job 7:17-19
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eyes see you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:3, 5-6
The Point?
People often assume the point of Job is to raise the philosophical issue of theodicy (a rational explanation of God's justice in allowing evil to exist in a world under divine control)
But the Book of Job actually challenges any attempt to provide a rational theodicy
The fundamental point of the Book of Job is to explore what ought to be a person’s relationship to God
"What is this smut doing in the Bible?!"
A former student of mine...
As previously mentioned, the Book of Psalms is not really a "Wisdom" book. It does contain examples of wisdom literature, but as a whole, it is a collection of songs and prayers.
With that being said, we cannot underestimate the value of the Book of Psalms.
It is the most referenced OT book in the NT
Indeed, when we pray the Psalms, we pray as Jesus prayed.
Indeed the Book of Psalms is unique in that it takes the form of an anthology of self-contained units, each having its own unique history.
The oldest psalms date back to around 1270 B.C.E. the latest, around the year 200 B.C.E.
As soon as wee glance at the Book of Psalms, we become engaged in a personal discourse with God. This discourse is immediate and direct and reflect the full gamut of human emotions (wonder, hope, fear, complaint, anger, praise, etc.)
Because the book contains both personal and communal prayers, it exposes the deepest motive of our hearts while bringing us into relationship with all people who join us in worship.
The Liturgy of the Hours, which is the official daily prayer of the Church, is centered around praying the Psalms
We cannot fully interpret the psalms by simply reading them because, for the most part, they were composed to be sung aloud to the accompaniment of music.
Throughout the psalms, there are notations "for the director" and references to musical instruments such as strings and flutes.
Thus the psalms receive their fullest interpretation when a congregation sings them in a faith-filled response to the revelation of God in the midst of the assembly.
73 of the 150 Psalms reference David in their title. An additional 14 psalms describe particular instances from David's life.
The historical record shows that from his youth David was a skilled musician and, as king, he sang songs of praise before the Ark of YHWH.
He was certainly a patron of music.
In total there are 150 psalms.
It is quite possible that David composed some psalms, though we cannot be certain which, if any of the collections of the Book of Psalms might have come from his hand.
Nevertheless, it is clear that David had a pervasive influence as a patron of the Psalms and the composers of these psalms grew up in the tradition that David inspired.
In the culture of ancient Israel, there was greater honor in being associated with the heritage of an ancient master than in seeking individual prominence.
Thus, it is far more likely that the composers and editors of the individual psalms viewed David as their muse or inspriation.
These psalms celebrate the majesty of YHWH revealed in creation and demonstrated in the salvific events in Israel's history
Follow a basic three-part structure:
1. Invitation to worship YHWH in a song
2. The psalmist expresses the reasons for acclaiming YHWH
3. A recapitulation of the introduction reinforcing how appropriate it is to praise YHWH
A common theme in praise psalms is the idea that Jerusalem (Zion) as the place above all others on the face of the earth.
A second theme common in praise psalms is the idea that YHWH is king over the people - not just Israel, but over the whole world.
More than have the psalms focus on God's activity of delivering Israel from affliction and death.
Both the psalms of lament and thanksgiving appeal to YHWH as the Redeemer, but from differing perspectives. The psalms of lament express the sorrow of someone seeking deliverance, while the prayers of thanksgiving express the gratitude of someone who has recently received deliverance.
Both psalms of lament and thanksgiving share the same basic six-part structure:
1. An appeal to YHWH's name
2. A description of the suffering in the present or in the past
3. A plea for deliverance in the present or in the past
4. An exposition of the worthiness of the cause
5. A vow to offer sacrifice in gratitude for the deliverance
6. A declaration of thanksgiving
The laments of individuals express the outcry of the afflicted (anawim) who have only YHWH as their source of healing from deliverance and oppression.
The psalms of faith express the confidence of individuals who renew their commitment to rely on YHWH as their source of life and hope.
God's special covenant with David provided Israel with the assurance of enduring as an everlasting kingdom. Because the king was the servant of YHWH, he was a prominent figure in the religious life of Israel.
These psalms exhibit a common concern for the welfare of Israel's king. Together, they represent a diversity of prayer forms (intercessions, petitions, prophecies of victory, liturgies of enthronement, commemoration of the Davidic covenant, etc..
After the Davidic line had receded from prominence following the Babylonian Exile, a variety of royal psalms became "messianic" when people interpreted them as referring to a Davidic king who would accomplish the promises God had made to David.
These psalms share a direct connection with the conventional wisdom tradition of Israel (like that found in Proverbs).
Like Proverbs, these psalms contain directions and admonitions about the proper conduct of one's life.
Many of these psalms are not so much prayers as reflections offering guiding principles for living everyday circumstances.
Like Proverbs, these psalms contrast the "two ways" (expressed here as the way of the virtuous and the way of the wicked. The audience is confronted with a choice between these two paths. One will lead to life, the other death.
Like Israel's wisdom tradition in general, these psalms states that the Torah is the source of righteousness and the "fear of YHWH" as the foremost of virtues.
In many cases, the wisdom psalms exhibit a distinctive form (5 of them are acrostic).
The wisdom psalms form a connection between the schools of prophecy and the schools of wisdom. These are not simply instructions on how to attain a good life; these often offer moral and religious and moral exhortations more common to the prophetic genre.
Like most of the Wisdom books, authorship is attributed to Solomon but its pseudonymous
All we can say is that the author was Jewish scholar who worked in Alexandria shortly after 30 B.C.E. (This makes it the last book to be written that would become a part of the Catholic Old Testament.
This scholar stands in the tradition of Sirach as a theologian who demonstrates how Jewish tradition illuminated understanding to provide the most truthful, profound, and comprehensive vision of reality.
We know this because he uses terms that began to occur during the reign of the first Roman Emperor: Caesar Augustus, whose reign began in 27 B.C.E.
We can also say he had considerable intellectual skills. He was familiar with the philosophical schools of Platonism and Stoicism, the religious traditions of the Isis cult, and the scientific developments in astronomy and botany.
But he was also thoroughly Jewish. He constantly refers to Scripture. It is the reference point for every other discipline.
The book of Wisdom is an"apologia"
(defense) of Judaism.
The author composed his book for Jewish students and intellectuals who were abandoning their faith as they embraced Hellenistic philosophy and religion.
He wanted to show them how Judaism surpasses Greek systems of thought as the ultimate embodiment of wisdom in the world.
The book takes the form of an exhortation by King Solomon to all world leaders.
By means of this literary device, the book represents the authoritative voice of Judaism instructing all peoples and cultures.
Existentialism (definition): a philosophical approach that begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.
To use the term "existentialism" or even "existential" in reference to the Wisdom Books is actually anachronistic, but it is a fitting description since within existentialism, t
he individual's starting point is characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world
This is a major theme in many of the Wisdom Books of the Bible.
As such, Judaism is presented as standing superior to all of systems of thought.
To accomplish his task, the author produced a work in three parts which are remarkably distinct from each other:
The relationship of righteousness and immortality
A first-person testimony concerning divine Wisdom
Divine Wisdom at work within the history of Israel
Though it was not the first. The Books of Daniel and 2 Maccabees both predate Wisdom and both speak of an afterlife.
He alludes to the cult of Isis in the description of Sophia as the spouse of YHWH (9:4)
Sophia is the source of eternal life (8:13), the one who can do all things (7:27).
Mention of Sophia communicating "the secrets of God's knowledge" reflects the language of the Hellenistic mystery religions (8:2-16).
The twenty-one qualities of Sophia suggest absolute perfection (7 * 3). This is reminiscent of the concept of the Logos in Greek philosophy (7:22-23, 24-26).
Sophia also produces the four virtues (temperance, prudence, justice, and courage). These were highly esteemed within Greek philosophy.

By cloning scriptural Sophia in the terminology of the Greek world, the author demonstrates that whatever his audience might be seeking - in the cult of Isis or in Hellenistic philosophy - it is most genuinely available in the Jewish religious tradition.
So God saves the righteous "people of Israel" by the same means he destroys the godless "Egyptians." While the Israelites received water from the rock, the Egyptians saw their river turn to blood (11:4-14).
Within the seven contrasts the author makes two crucial digressions:
1. The author defends the goodness of God (11:15 - 12:27).
2. God's Opposition to Idolatry and False Worship.
The title of the book in Greek is "Sirach," the Hellenized version of its author's name.
The Latin Vulgate called it "
" which means "the Church's text." (But this title is too close in spelling to Ecclesiastes, so to avoid confusion, it is typically not used.)
I will use "Sirach" when referring to the book and "Ben Sira" when referring to the author.
This is because the book was not counted among the sacred books of the TaNaKh. Thus the Hebrew version was not preserved.
During Ben Sira's time, Hellenism - the ascendance of Greek thought and culture across the world - was creating a crisis within Judaism.
For example, he reflects Homer's Iliad when he likens the passing of generations to the seasonal falling and budding of leaves (14:18).
His wariness of involvement with others who can damage one's good name reflects the maxims of an Egyptian sage named Phibis (13:1 - 14:2; 41: 11-13).
However, he was NEVER indebted solely to foreign wisdom for the final product of his work.
Instead, he adapts the adapts the source material so as to make the wisdom of the Greeks and Egyptians serve the cause of Judaism.
In both style and content, Sirach imitates Proverbs.
The rhythmic, balanced proverb remains a constant element throughout his work.
But there are some clear differences between Sirach and the Book of Proverbs:
1. The Book of Proverbs generally lacked topical coherence. That is, proverbs were grouped together randomly, with no apparent connection between them.
On the other hand, Ben Sira collected his maxims into groups around particular themes.
2. Both Ben Sira and the final editor of the Book of Proverbs moved beyond the singular proverbial statement and into longer didactic poems. However, Ben Sira covers a much more wide-ranging spectrum of topics.
3. Ben Sira surpasses the theological boundaries of Proverbs by bringing his teachings to a crescendo in hymns and prayers. Nowhere in Proverbs do we find the sage addressing God in direct speech. However, Ben Sira encourages his disciples to contemplate the greatness of God in creation and in ruling over all people so as to offer the Lord praise beyond measure as the culmination of their study (39:12-35; 43:27-33).
Ben Sira breaks through the barriers that had separated the Wisdom tradition from the Torah and the Prophets:
Qouheleth and the composers of Proverbs did not quote the Torah or the prophets, nor did they allude to Israel's history of salvation. Creation and natural reason provided the raw material for their reflections.
In contrast, Ben Sira brings his text to a climax by acclaiming the heroism of the great figures whose exploits are narrated in Scripture (Sirach 44:1 - 49:16).
In fact, sometimes his instructions draw inspiration directly from the Scriptures and take the form of penetrating expositions of the Torah.
For example, his teaching on the respect children owe their parents is really a commentary on the commandment to honor one's father and mother, and contains allusions to both Genesis and Proverbs (3: 1-16. See Genesis 27:1-45 and 49:3-27).
All people possess the inner governing principle of this law which directs them in search of wisdom.

For Ben Sira, God’s Word penetrates to the core of all individuals by the very fact of their existence.
When God created human beings, he bestowed intelligence upon them, “put the fear of him in their hearts” and “he endowed them with the law of life” (17:7-11).
Wisdom sings her own praises, among her own people she proclaims her glory. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, in the presence of his host she tells of her glory:

“From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and covered the earth like a mist. In the heights of heaven I dwelt, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. The vault of heaven I compassed alone, and walked through the deep abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the land, over every people and nation I held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place. In whose inheritance should I abide? Then the Creator of all gave me his command, and my Creator chose the spot for my tent. He said, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance.’ Before all ages, from the beginning, he created me, and through all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. In the city he loves as he loves me, he gave me rest; in Jerusalem, my domain. I struck root among the glorious people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage. Like a cedar in Lebanon I grew tall, like a cypress on Mount Hermon; I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi, like rosebushes in Jericho; Like a fair olive tree in the field, like a plane tree beside water I grew tall. Like cinnamon and fragrant cane, like precious myrrh I gave forth perfume; Like galbanum and onycha and mastic, like the odor of incense in the holy tent. I spread out my branches like a terebinth, my branches so glorious and so graceful. I bud forth delights like a vine; my blossoms are glorious and rich fruit. Come to me, all who desire me, and be filled with my fruits. You will remember me as sweeter than honey, better to have than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger still, those who drink of me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who serve me will never go astray.”

All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God,
the Law which Moses commanded us as a heritage for the community of Jacob. It overflows, like the Pishon, with wisdom, and like the Tigris at the time of first fruits. It runs over, like the Euphrates, with understanding, and like the Jordan at harvest time. It floods like the Nile with instruction, like the Gihon at vintage time. The first human being never finished comprehending wisdom, nor will the last succeed in fathoming her. For deeper than the sea are her thoughts, and her counsels, than the great abyss. Now I, like a stream from a river, and like water channeling into a garden—I said, “I will water my plants, I will drench my flower beds.” Then suddenly this stream of mine became a river, and this river of mine became a sea. Again I will make my teachings shine forth like the dawn; I will spread their brightness afar off. Again I will pour out instruction like prophecy
and bestow it on generations yet to come.

This is the secret word until 11:59 p.m. October 10, 2014. Then it will change to something else so the secret word isn't broadcast on social media. It will change every 24 hours until the due date at 7:40 am, October 13, 2014.
But not in Wisdom section
What made the Israelite wisdom tradition unique in the ancient world was its connection of wisdom to one's faith in YHWH.
Since YHWH is the source of all things, YHWH is the source of wisdom as well.
Thus, the pursuit of wisdom is seen as a religious act; wisdom leads to a good life, which leads to personal wholeness. Foolishness is seen as synonymous with sin.
Wisdom was seen as the goal of all human activity
Within Israel's wisdom tradition, the purpose of Wisdom was to discover the meaning and values of human existence within a divine moral order established by YHWH.

Specifically, the pursuit of wisdom involved five related types of human activity:
Technical Skill

Craftsmanship or construction. Seen as a divine gift; not a secular talent
Political Insight

(teachers in the wisdom tradition) were also advisors of the royal court
Moral Knowledge
Possessing keen moral insight enables happiness and prosperity

Superior Knowledge
Training in wisdom will set people apart from the average person
Gift of
Divine Revelation
(Greek word meaning wisdom; different Biblical Wisdom books relate Sophia to YHWH in different ways.
As an example of
wisdom, the sages who authored these collections saw wisdom as practical expertise.
Therefore, jewelers who cut precious stones were "wise"; kings who made their dominion peaceful and prosperous were wise

The authors of these proverbs assumed that any person could be wise, so they offer the reader advice on how this could be done in one's daily life.
For these sages, following this “sound guidance”,
will lead to having a prosperous household and living, a long and healthy life, and being in harmony with YHWH's creation.
Relationship to YHWH
Relationship of parents and children
Contrast between just and wicked in behavior
Value of good friends and loving spouse
Civic virtues of honesty, generosity, justice, and integrity
Personal mastery of passions and self-control
Knowing when to speak and not to speak

Stewardship over wealth, prudence, hard work, and future planning
Manners and proper behavior
Whoa, that's bleak. Why so melodramatic?

Many scholars date Ecclesiastes somewhere in the third century B.C.E., when Judea was under the oppressive domination of Hellenistic kings.
The average Jew would have felt a sense of powerlessness and inability to change things for the better.
For this author, God seems remote and uncommunicative. We cannot hope to understand, much less influence, God’s activity in the world
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